x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Families urged to give maids a day off

UAE has voted for global charter on domestic rights, including weekly time off, but many sponsors suspect leisure time will lead to illegal activity.

ABU DHABI // Families who employ domestic staff were yesterday urged to ensure that they have a weekly day off.

"Employers tell us their maids are with them when they go out," said Elizabeth Marie Estrada, assistant labour attache at the Philippine overseas labour office in Abu Dhabi. "But maids also want to go out alone to enjoy and relax.

"Some employers give a day off to their housemaids, but others don't because they are concerned they will get pregnant if she finds a boyfriend outside."

Ms Estrada said the standard contract provided by Abu Dhabi immigration states that "the work, including adequate breaks, is required with the agreement of both parties". It does not mention a weekly day off.

"We always tell the workers that they need to earn the trust of their employers," she added.

Leny Alzaga, 34, a housemaid from the Philippines, said domestic workers needed leisure time.

Her contract does not include a weekly day off but she does not work on Thursday nights or on Fridays.

"I'm allowed to go out at night and even use the swimming pool in our building when I ask their permission," she said. "Other maids are given a half day off.

"I don't think it's fair to say that maids will get pregnant or [involved in] illegal activities when they have a day off."

But Juliet Lasalita, who runs a recruitment agency in Al Ain that hires Filipino and Indonesian maids and nannies, said it was "dangerous" for maids to go out alone. "Where will they spend their day off?" she asked. "In Hong Kong and Singapore, maids have a place to congregate."

When a maid has worked for at least three years and earned her sponsor's trust, they are allowed to go to church, buy their favourite food or send money to relatives at exchange centres, said Ms Lasalita.

"The driver even accompanies them," she said. "But they need to return after a few hours."

Hannan Hadi, head of the consular section at the Indonesian embassy, said maids signed a contract before leaving Indonesia that entitled them to a weekly day off, or compensation in lieu.

"But the contracts maids signed in our country are not being recognised in the UAE," he said. "They do not get a day off each week."

Indonesia has said that from 2017 it will stop sending maids to countries that have not signed up to guarantees regarding the women's rights and safety.

In June last year, the UAE voted for an International Labour Organisation charter on the rights of domestic workers, at a conference of member states in Geneva.

It promises clearly defined conditions of employment for domestic workers, including a weekly day off and freedom of association.

The Government has not said how it will implement the agreement. Neither the Ministry of Labour nor Ministry of Interior could be reached for comment yesterday.

The UAE is not the only country to have struggled to find a balance between rights for domestic staff and employers' requirements.

Last month, Tan Chuan-Jin, Singapore's minister of state for manpower, announced a mandatory weekly rest day for maids. Employers who need their services on their rest day must compensate them.

Mr Tan said a weekly day off was a "basic labour right".

"More than physical rest, it is an important mental and emotional break from work," he said.

But at least one Emirati employer was not convinced that the Singapore system would work here.

"It's up to them," said Jamal, 47, a father of three and a senior bank manager in Dubai. "But I'm paying our maids well. They are treated well and they get an increase in their salaries almost every year.

"You don't know where they go, who they meet and what they do during their day off.

"It's not advisable to give them a day off. They get into relationships. Then the family starts receiving calls from strangers on our landline. We don't feel comfortable."

When the family goes out, the maids - four Indonesians and two Filipinas - go too.

"There is no reason for them to ask for a day off," said Jamal. "They eat with us - the same food we eat - and we buy them dresses."

His maids earn a basic salary of between Dh800 and Dh900 a month, with up to Dh1,700 for experienced maids who have stayed with the family for years.

Since December 2006, the Philippine government has required its citizens to be paid at least US$400 (Dh1,470) a month for domestic work. Indonesia's government set the minimum wage for housemaids and nannies at Dh800.

rruiz@thenational.ae